"Kathleen/As long as I have waited,/As long as you searched too./As long as stars have fated,/As long as four winds blew./As long as skies above,/As long as sunshine's shone,/As long as I can love,/You'll never walk alone. -- Jay to Kathleen
"Jay, I needed the strength of a companion who could understand me and accept me for who I was. I needed a special friend with whom I could share both laughter and tears. I needed you. Finding you and loving you has become the central event in my life." -- Kathleen to Jay.
The Jay-Kathleen ceremony was performed last December on the West Coast. The vows the couple penned for their California wedding reflect the sentiments and ideals they believe to be uniquely theirs; intimate expressions to share with each other, the friends and family who witnessed their union, and ultimately, with cyberspace. Yes, cyberspace. The details of Jay and Kathleen's vows are on full display, along with the wedding ceremonies of many others, in an Internet site called the "World ++ Wide Wed."
In an era when couples are marrying later in life, and when second (and third) marriages and interfaith, intercultural and same-sex unions are common, many newlyweds-to-be are seeking alternatives to traditional wedding vows.
Like Kathleen and Jay, couples are choosing to write vows that are unique to their relationship. Many borrow nontraditional vows from another culture or religion, or from a book specializing in wedding vows and readings.
Traditional Hindu mantra: "I am the word and you are the melody. You are the melody and I am the word."
Some couples bring a favorite poem or song into their exchange.
From Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese": "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways./I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/My soul can reach when feeling out of sight."
And ceremony sites of special significance are being incorporated into the vows. Couples with a zeal for the outdoors, for example, have been known to plant a tree or two as a symbol of their respect for the Earth and growing love for one another.
"Special, personalized wedding vows can be lovely," says Millie Bratten, editor of Bride's magazine. "Writing them together allows a couple to explore the meaning of marriage as well as the roots of their own relationship. Vows lay the foundation for the future with all the higher concepts -- love, faith, hope and trust."
The exchange of wedding vows was once very simple. In the first century, couples would publicly exchange rings while reciting something like "Be thou consecrated to me."
By the 15th century, rabbis or priests were required to bless a marriage, and for centuries since, religious tradition has determined most of the details of traditional ceremonies. Christian weddings, for example, often include this exchange from the Book of Common Prayer:
"To have and to hold. To love and to cherish. For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. Forsaking all others. Till death do us part."
Create-your-own-wedding-vows first became popular in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Watergate, war and the women's movement defined the times, and young people began questioning both political and religious institutions.
Weddings of the era -- picture a flower-laden meadow and barefoot, beaded bride and groom -- might have featured passages from Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet":
"Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each of you be alone,/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music."
Vows that were vaguely metaphysical also came into vogue:
"Two flames, one light. Let us walk together always, and let us always walk toward the light."
As did the confessional:
"I used to be afraid of falling in love, afraid of giving my heart away. ... "
By the late 1970s and 1980s, couples were divorcing in droves, but romance for the institution of marriage lived on. Vows appropriate for second marriages were composed:
"We come here as two people who know who we are. We couldn't be who we are today or share who we will become tomorrow, without having lived the lives of yesterday."
As were those that recognized children from previous marriages: "I promise to be a good and kind mother/father to [children's names]. And I rejoice today in our decision to join our families."
Today's weddings are often a mixture of the personal and traditional. Couples marrying outside a church or synagogue can choreograph and write a ceremony all their own.
Florine J. Robinson, a minister and notary public in Baltimore, has performed ceremonies in a graveyard, a junkyard, on a train, boat and horseback. Regardless of the setting, Robinson encourages couples to personalize their vows with sentiment that's special to them.
"Vows from the Book of Common Prayer aren't written in stone," she says. "As long as the vows are written from the heart, meaning there's nothing in them profane or hurtful, they can make a wedding really special."